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What Should We Make of Teach for America?

I found the article on Teach for America (TFA) in The New York Times on Monday really very interesting. A young reporter, Amanda Fairbanks (herself a participant in TFA from 2003 to 2005), tells us about an academic study of the propensity for future civic engagement of former TFAers.  Fairbanks reports that TFA founder Wendy Kopp requested the study from the prominent Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam on the basis of an earlier investigation McAdam had conducted of the civic impact of the Freedom Summer experience upon the students who volunteered to register voters in Mississippi in 1964.  McAdam apparently found that the civil rights volunteers were significantly energized for later civic engagement by their experience in the South.

But if Kopp expected similar results from a study of TFA, she was disappointed, for McAdam found at best mixed outcomes for the teachers. It is hard for me to evaluate the study (which is soon to appear in Social Forces) on the basis of the newspaper article, but Fairbanks reports that “the findings indicate that the program neither achieves an earlier organizational goal of ‘making citizens’ nor produces people who, in great numbers, take their civic commitments beyond the field of education.” She quotes Kopp as objecting to the fact that McAdam measured general civic engagement rather than “evaluating whether we are producing more leaders who believe educational inequity is a solvable problem, who have a deep understanding of the causes and solutions, and who are taking steps to address it in fundamental and lasting ways.”

I’ll read the McAdam report when it is published, but for the moment what really interests me is the question of how a project like TFA relates to recent concerns (mostly generated by Bob Putnam’s Bowling Alone) about regenerating social capital in the United States. It sounds to me as though McAdam believes that he has found that the TFA experience does not contribute directly to the creation of general social capital, whereas Kopp’s response (somewhat more modest than some of her claims for TFA) is that her program aims only at generating higher levels of concern and engagement with K-12 education.

There is of course no necessary inconsistency between these positions, since we should not expect that every socially oriented activity produces significant general social capital. This view is confirmed by Professor Rob Reich, a Stanford political scientist and a former volunteer for TFA, who is quoted by Fairbanks as saying that “unlike doing Freedom Summer, joining Teach for America is part of climbing up the elite ladder — it’s part of joining the system, the meritocracy.” And indeed, as Fairbanks notes, there was a flood of applicants for TFA in 2008, most notably on the elite campuses (like my own, and Harvard, where 13 percent of seniors applied). But last year (and this) are probably bad samples of applicant motivation, since at least some of these graduates are applying because alternative employment opportunities have mostly disappeared in the wake of the Great Recession.

It seems to me that it ought to be back to the drawing board for TFA. As Wendy Kopp suggests, the important questions are how many TFA participants are effective teachers, how many will continue to teach or otherwise commit themselves to public education, and how many will continue to be advocates for improving higher education over the long term. It may be too soon to tell, but before too long the TFA data will be central to answering the question of how this country can improve and sustain the quality of its most vital civil servants, school teachers. My own sense is that, thus far, the jury is still out on this question.

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